Firework phobias in dogs and cats are a common problem
Remember, remember the fifth of November….and most of the rest of the year too!
Phobic and fearful behaviour in pets is the fifth most common problem that members of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) encounter. Sudden loud noise is one of the most commonly described causes and it’s the run up to the 5th of November that owners most dread. So what can we do to help our fearful pets cope better amongst the whizzes and bangs that cause them such distress?
How can you reduce the likelihood of firework phobias in dogs and cats?
To help reduce the likelihood that your pet will develop fearful or phobic behaviour towards noise, including firework phobias, it is important that they are introduced gradually and carefully to potential problematic noisy situations early on in their development.
There are commercially available recordings of loud, sharp and sudden noise including fireworks that you can purchase online or even download for free. You can use these to help habituate your pet to these noises – in other words, allow your pet to become used to them by playing them softly in the background whilst you and your pet are enjoying fun games and treats. You can increase the volume as your pet becomes used to the sounds gradually over time.
Since there is a genetic component to fear it is also important that you meet the parents of your potential new kitten or puppy to make sure they are confident and relaxed.
However, even the most confident dog or cat may encounter a sudden noise that frightens it and to make things worse they might also associate the loud noise with situations linked to it such as flashes of light, the smell of bonfires, being in the garden or even being close to you. Your pet then may become fearful in these situations as well even when there isn’t any noise. So to make sure this doesn’t happen, keep your pets safely inside during this time with the radio or TV on and the curtains closed.
What are the signs of fear?
The signs that your dog is becoming anxious include more obvious signs such as whining, crying, shaking, panting, running away and hiding, together with more subtle signs such as lip/nose licking, yawning when not tired, lifting a paw, turning away, flattening their ears, frowning, tightening around their mouths, tucking away their tail, salivating and pacing. Cats may also nose lick, pant, gasp, over groom, and run away and hide when feeling anxious.
What can be done to help in the short term?
If your pet hides under the bed then this is where they probably feel the safest. Therefore, allow them this escape and don’t try to tempt or force them out. You can always make them a lovely snug den they can hide in and cover it in a blanket, fill it with old clothing you have worn, more bedding and some nice treats and toys.
You can help reduce the sound by closing the windows and curtains and turn up the TV or radio. Tell your pet all is well by behaving normally and if you want to give it a reassuring cuddle then go ahead if your pet is happy to be hugged.
If your pet has a firework phobia, they may feel safer hiding
Your vet will also be able to offer short-term solutions such as calming diets, supplements, pheromones and medication.
What can be done to help firework phobias in dogs and cats in the long term?
If your dog or cat is already fearful of sudden noise such as fireworks, then unfortunately now isn’t the best time to start. It takes time and commitment to help change how your pet is feeling emotionally when the home it usually feels safe in is bombarded by loud whizzes and bangs.
So it’s best to start when the noise is unlikely to occur and begin to de-sensitise and counter condition your pet to the noises that it fears using commercially available sound recordings. These recordings come with an instruction manual but basically the recording is played at low volume so your pet is aware of it but doesn’t react fearfully and is happy to play with toys, eat food and focus on fun training games. Once they are relaxed and not taking any notice of the sounds you can increase the volume and repeat the fun. This may take a few weeks and even months to achieve but it is really worth the effort.
Special sound recordings can help to de-sensitise and counter-condition your pet to the noises they fear
Feeling frightened doesn’t just happen when the scary things occur. Often there are triggers in the environment that alert your pet that something horrible is about to happen. For instance the reduction in daylight, a change of weather, the smell and even the sound of bonfires so it is just as important to makes sure your pet is de-sensitised and counter-conditioned to these in the long term to reduce the anticipated fear that they may also experience. A qualified clinical behaviourist referred by your vet will be able to help provide an individually designed programme to suit your pet and your insurance company may even help cover some of the costs.
Fireworks do not just happen on November the 5th! Here are some top tips for how to help prepare your pets for firework noise
- Taking your dog along to a firework display will not help them ‘get over’ their fear.
- Make sure your dog has a long walk before the fireworks begin and has been to the toilet. So feed early on in the day.
- Prepare a safe place for your dog to hide in and fill it with fun things to eat and to play with. Make sure your dog has learned that this is a great place to hide by spending time beforehand feeding and playing with your dog inside and also allowing them to escape there to relax if the hustle and bustle of family life gets too much.
- If you are worried about how you dog might react then have an enjoyable night in watching the TV with the sound turned up or listening to music whilst reading a book. Draw the curtains to soften the noise and to block the flash of the lights and relax.
- Check with your surrounding neighbours if they are planning a firework party and think about spending the evening with family members or friends that prefer a quieter life.
- Do not become anxious or angry if your dog begins to bark, howl, cry, toilet, rips up its bedding or scratches at the bedroom door to get to the safety of beneath the bed. If they are showing signs of distress ask your vet to refer you to a qualified clinical animal behaviourist who will be able offer long-term help.
- Make sure your cat is indoors before the fireworks start and all routes out are securely closed. Find your litter trays and place them in a quiet place and show your cat where they are.
- Fill your house with fun things for cats to do and places to hide. You can improvise with cardboard boxes, bits of string, feathers, ping-pong balls and hidden treats.
- Close your curtains and put on the radio or the TV and turn up the volume.
- If they want to curl up safely on your lap then enjoy this time together but if they want to hide under the bed then let them be.
Other Pets and Wildlife
- Place outdoor hutches inside if you can such as the garage or utility area. If this is not possible think about how you might be able to sound proof them better by using covers and by adding more bedding and hiding places.
- Check underneath any bonfires you may be thinking of lighting.
Think about your neighbours and how your revelry might affect any pets they may have. There are always public firework displays to attend and other ways you can still have lots of fun and enjoy the festive season ahead.